Welcome to the world of fast fashion
Dressing up fashionably is becoming an increasingly mindless task. Shop windows change every two weeks with new collections and t-shirts may cost as low as 5$. Amazing, right? You are able to be on trend without ruining your budget. Besides, according to some well known economists such as John Maynerd Keynes, you are contributing to the growth of your economy the more you consume.
Fast fashion retailers introduce new products multiple times a week, making us feel that the clothes we own are outdated or have a poor design. Most times, this is not true.
When we think of mass production which results in low quality products, labour exploitation, environmental disregard and lack of security at work, the beautiful world of fast fashion becomes a little bit less pretty.
It’s undeniable that a consumerist world may bring some economical and even social benefits for a tiny part of the population. However, in this article, we invite you to look to the other side of the coin – the one we tend to ignore, the one which doesn’t directly affect us.
Mass production in the fast fashion industry
“No, it is not our choice. We must work overtime. If not, the gate is open for us to quit our job.”
According to the world resources institute, the average consumer is buying 60% more clothes now than in 2000, which explains why the fast fashion industry has grown so much. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, clothing production has approximately doubled in the last 15 years, driven by a growing middle-class population across the globe. This industry is expected to continue growing due to the foreseen 400% increase in world GDP by 2050.
The fashion industry represents 4% of the global market share (406 billion dollars), having huge implications on both the economic growth and social welfare in several countries.
Since trade law changes in the 1970’s, the supply chain has been spreading out geographically to sub-developed economies, as firms wanted to keep increasing their production while reducing average costs.
To achieve economies of scale, fast fashion industries chose to produce in countries where there were low wages and poor labour regulation.
Because of that, these countries have increased their GDP. In Bangladesh as well as in India, GDP growth was exponential, growing from 25 billions of dollars in 1995 to almost 275 billions of dollars in 2015. However, this increase in GDP was not translated into an increase in welfare. According to the United Nations’ development programme, Bangladesh has an Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) of 0.462 and 67.3% of the total labour force lives under poverty. In India, the reality is almost the same, the IHDI is 0.462 and 42.9% of the total labour force lives with less than 3 dollars per day.
According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, during the 1960s roughly 95% of the apparel worn in the U.S. was made domestically. Nowadays, it’s less than 3%. The fashion landscape has changed from being seasonal to new clothes arriving every week, but at what cost? In 2007, labour rights organizations in Bangalore, India, estimated that the bare minimum a garment worker’s family (average size: 4.4 members) needs is around 4364 rupees (€ 80) per month to live. Yet the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangalore starts at 2418 rupees (€ 42) per month, and, according to Labour behind the Label, many workers earn just this amount.
Similarly in Bangladesh, a study for Clean Clothes Campaign by Martin Hearson discovered some workers on the minimum wage of 1662 taka (€ 16.60) and most factories paying an average take-home wage (boosted by considerable amounts of overtime) in the region of 2,500-3,000 taka (€ 25-30). However, at the time that this minimum wage was set, in 2006, living wage1 estimates for a Bangladeshi garment worker’s family were around 4,800 taka (€ 48). Low payment like this often means that garment workers are keen to work overtime to help bring in more money. However, in the majority of workplaces that Clean Clothes Campaign surveyed, a significant proportion of the overtime is unpaid. This is often because employers set impossible daily targets, requiring workers to stay at work until they have met them. Only then they are paid. A tailor in Tirupur told Clean Clothes Campaign “No, it is not our choice. We must work overtime. If not, the gate is open for us to quit our job.”
Besides paying low wages, the factories where these workers spend most of their time have, in general, really poor working conditions, which frequently leads to severe accidents. According to Reuters, between 2005 and 2016 at least 9 deadly accidents happened in Bangladesh, most of them in garment factories which supply global clothing brands.
The worst accident happened in April 2013 when an eight story building, Rana Plaza, housing 5 garment factories, collapsed due to a structural failure. Besides the failure to meet security standards, according to the head of Bangladesh Fire Service & Civil Defence, the upper floors had been built without permission. On the day before the collapse, some cracks in the walls of the building had been noticed and the building was evacuated. However, on the following day, workers were ordered to enter the factory despite the complaints about the appearance of cracks in the walls. Bank and stores employees were not there but more than 3000 workers, mostly women and young people, were inside the building when it collapsed, and 1134 of them died.
Affordable does not always mean sustainable
Besides the social harm of mass production, this practice will also generate negative environmental externalities. According to the World Resources Institute, to produce one cotton shirt 2,700 liters of water are needed, the equivalent of what a regular person drinks in two and a half years. On the other hand, the production of a pair of jeans generates as much greenhouse gases as driving a car for more than 80 miles. Washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean every year.
This way, the fast fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the global water waste and 10% of total gas emissions.
To produce at a lower cost firms use cheaper materials (such as polyester, acrylic or nylon), synthetic fabrics, dangerous dyes and toxic chemicals. Moreover, when consumers wash their clothes they release plastic fibres into the ocean as most of the materials used to produce clothes in the fast fashion industry are made from petroleum. The most widely used input in the fast fashion industry, polyester, is a fine example. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce this material and it is responsible for 35% of the microplastics present in the ocean.
“ If we only have one body, why do we need thousands of clothes?”
Slow fashion, which is the deliberate choice of purchasing better quality items, but less often, has risen in opposition to fast fashion. By using high quality resources and production methods, guaranteeing better working conditions and compensation for employees, this alternative is considered environmentally and ethically conscious rather than trend driven.
However, there are other ways beyond slow fashion capable of softening fast fashion environmental consequences, such as:
Donating unused clothes to charity institutions or to your family and friends. Do not throw them in the organic bins as, if they are composed of synthetic, non-biodegradable fibers, they will just pile up in the landfill;
Looking for shops which take back used clothes from their own brands or even from other’s;
Trying your luck in second hand stores, a sustainable and economically efficient way of getting rid of what you don’t need anymore but which may be useful for someone else.
If it is true that not all of us are able to afford slow fashion items or they simply don’t satisfy our tastes, it is also true that companies produce according to our “production orders”. That is, if we keep on buying clothes just because they are fashionable or cheap, disregarding the environmental and social impacts of their production, this situation is never going to change.
As consumers, we have the power to dictate the rules. If we demand corporations to give their employees better working conditions or their production cycle to be more sustainable, they have no other way than to adapt. However, this would require a collective change of behaviour, so that corporations feel forced to satisfy our “new purchasing preferences”.
Besides, this problem could simply be solved with pure rationality. If we only have one body, why do we need thousands of clothes? Does it make any sense?
The first step in the fight against the environmental deterioration and social damages caused by the fast fashion industry is the change in our shopping routines, something reachable by all of us. We need to work together – there are no jobs on a dead planet. There is no equity without rights to decent work and social protection. Ultimately, there is no peace if we are uncertain about the sustainability of our planet.
It’s time to change.
1 A living wage enables workers and their dependents to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care, and transport, as well as allowing for a discretionary income.